Christians in the Holy Land

By Marijana Petir @theEUpost

Everything began with a young, naïve girl in Nazareth. She believed in the impossible. She accepted the impossible and the Holy Spirit came down on her”, said Greek Catholic Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Jules Zerey to the group of Catholic influencers who visited Israel via the Philos Project, the organization which promotes positive engagement of Christians in the Near East.

Speaking with great love about Mary and his recourse to her, he said that she always directs him to Jesus who is one with the Father. “Many persecute us because we believe that Jesus is the Son of God”, Zerey said. Indeed, Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world, and during these latest years it is in the cradle of Christianity that they experienced the fiercest persecution. The tragedy of the disappearing of Christians from the regions we deem sacred is the tragedy of losing the link with our roots. The communities and cultures which have survived for almost two thousand years, today are facing religious and cultural destruction. Still today streams of blood are flowing in the Middle East.

Streams of blood of Christians who have survived despite all historic adversities in the countries where our religion was born. Religion which often makes Middle East Christians the second class citizens. It is necessary to do everything to preserve Christianity in Middle East, in order for the Christians to remain and live in their homes. We have to be quite specific in our actions instead of silently watching our brothers and sisters being killed, or proclaiming resolutions which remain dead letters on paper. While from our warm homes we observe what is happening to the Christians in Middle East, but also worldwide, we get increasingly similar to Pontius Pilate, and less similar to Christ. This is why, when I was a Member of the European Parliament, I used every opportunity to draw public attention to the persecution of Christians, and I am still doing so; I have personally met those who experienced the persecution, and I fostered the activities which might make the position of Christians better.

Although each time when I come to the Holy Land, I feel immense happiness because I walk around places where Jesus walked, and I wish to touch every stone which his foot had touched, and embrace every tree under which He rested, breath in the air as deeply as I can to keep this feeling of God’s presence, this time, more than any time before, I was aware that this enthusiasm and happiness of walking in the Holy Land are not shared by all Christians who live there.

It was never easy to be a Christian, and today it looks like a real challenge. Roman Catholic Bishop and General Vicar for Jerusalem Giacinto – Boulos Marcuzzo told us that the Christians in the Holy Land are much more faithful to Jesus Christ than the Christians in Europe and America. “To be a Christian in the Holy Land is a mission, not a coincidence”, says Marcuzzo.

But, the Christians are leaving the Holy Land more and more, and nowadays they make up only 2% of the whole population. The Catholic Church provides education for them via 66 schools (from kindergartens to universities) to enable them to get jobs with their excellent education and remain. Almost 82% of the budget of the Jerusalem Latin Patriarchate and Catholic parishes is set apart for the education of children, and while Israel helps to finance Christian schools, there is no such help in Palestine. The problem is remarkable on the West Bank where there are about 40,000 Christians, and in Gaza where only 900 Christians remained, since due to a very low birth rate and emigration, the Christian population is rapidly decreasing.

Young people I spoke with wish to leave the area, especially Gaza, due to a very poor economic situation and lack of work, but also due to the political situation, since most of them cannot move freely and go out of Gaza. In Palestine family laws are based on Sharia law, which also attains Christians. It is illegal to convert to Christianity, so the conversions take place in secrecy. We met a student who became Christian, but her family does not know it. She dares not tell them, not only because of the law, but because of her elder sister’s experience when she decided to not wear the hidjab. Her mother, who is not in the least a religious person, under the pressure of her surroundings to make her daughter wear a  hidjab and show that she is a “good Moslem”, entered her daughter’s room, and while the daughter was sitting at the table and learning, she cut her hair with scissors. It was a devastating experience, since you expect your mother to love and protect you, to support you when you fight for your freedom and push the own frontiers, and not to break your dignity and integrity. At that moment I felt all the weight she carried in her heart, but I also felt the admiration because she decided to follow Christ despite all the troubles.

My stance is that the law should be changed so that all those who wish to change or abandon their religion would have the right to do so without any limitations, also to have the right to practise and manifest their thought, conscience, religion and belief, alone or in community with others, private and in public. Anyway, this is guaranteed by Article 18 of the Universal declaration of human rights.

While I was still under the impression of her strong testimony, a young woman appeared before us, who became Christian, also without knowledge of her family and who in secrecy married a Palestinian Christian who lives in Israel. Her marriage is not legally recognized and she cannot live with her husband in Israel. That is, if a Palestinian from Jerusalem marries a woman from the West Bank, the couple must apply for the family to be united in order to be permitted to live together in Jerusalem, but the process is very complicated, which results in that a husband and a wife live separated, each one on his or her side of the wall, or alternatively the wife lives in Jerusalem illegally, without any rights. If both move to the West Bank, the spouse who is of Israeli nationality will lose his residence rights in Jerusalem. Whoever has loved anybody is well aware how difficult it is to be separated from the beloved one, and in particular if you gave your heart to that person forever, and have affirmed it before God in the holy sacrament of marriage.

In front of us was this woman who lives without her husband, and her children live without their father, because the system prevents them from being together. Although her heart was pierced by sharp pain, she kept her head upright when she was exposing her situation, and she did not shed a tear. I squeezed her hand and told her to remain bold. It should be made possible for the Christian families to be united, and I deem that this problem can be solved by the mediation of Christian Churches whose members are those Christians seeking to be united, as the Churches to which they belong are well acquainted with them, they can guarantee for them and they can issue a plausible and valid confirmation to them. This should also apply to Christians who wish to leave Gaza and the West Bank and look for their happiness elsewhere. Freedom of movement is a fundamental human right. Such solution should be communicated with Israel, who due to their surroundings of nine terrorist organizations are very cautious and put great efforts into ensuring their citizens safety.

Overwhelmed with emotions, I arrived to Jish, the town of St. Paul’s parents, where Christians were a majority 15 years ago, while nowadays there are 50% of Christians and 50% of Muslims. From the early days of Christianity the Christians in Jish have belonged to Jesus and they speak Aramaic. The representatives of the Christian Aramaic Association told us about the needs of their people in Israel, and how they carry out the revival of the Syriac Aramaic language and identity in Galilee. Grateful to the state of Israel who recognized their identity, they say that this recognition is only the beginning after which further steps will follow, which the Aramaic community and the state of Israel have to carry out in order to secure a positive and greater role for the Aramaic Christian population in Israel.

One of their main projects is the building of the first Christian Aramaic city in Galilee for the revival of Aramaic language and culture. They deem that education is essential for success, and in Haifa they cooperate with Fr Yousef Yacoub in order to open the First Aramaic school in the country. Full of enthusiasm and positive engagement, the Christian Aramaic minority works on the strengthening of their rights which will be useful to them and to Israel.

The Syriac Aramaic Christian model which contributes to the dialogue in the region burdened with conflicts is extremely important, since Christians as followers of Jesus Christ are called to bring peace, and this is possible only if we have enough love towards God and towards our neighbours. And it is in Jish that Paul’s words in his Hymn to love from the First Letter to Corinthians have so vividly come alive. I was present at a wedding in a Maronite Catholic Church, and there was no better way to end my visit to the Holy Land. Amir lifted the veil from Natalie’s face and kissed her in the forehead expressing thus his deep respect and love, after which he led her to the altar, where they promised before God to love and respect each other till death do them part.

Love is the initiator of all things and it carries us in hard moments. To love as Jesus taught us is an obligation for the Christians. It is a Law which we have to keep before our eyes and carry it in the heart. Since without love we are nothing.

Marijana Petir is a former Member of the European Parliament